Auburn 26, Tennessee 22: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth
The Auburn Tigers knocked off the Tennessee Volunteers 26-22 on Saturday night in Knoxville, surviving a 16-point Volunteer fourth quarter. While the Tigers answered a number of nagging questions in Rocky Top, others persist.
First the good news.
Auburn is 5-0. With a game against Furman still to come, the Tigers are all but assured a bowl game, which, at the beginning of the season, was considered a reasonable goal for 2009. Given the current state of the SEC, expectations for an upper tier bowl are now not unreasonable.
Tiger head coach Gene Chizik notched his first road win as a head coach in one of the most hostile environments in the league and in the process extended Auburn's winning streak over its longtime rival.
Chizik's young team proved it can maintain focus and thrive away from the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It will be almost impossible for poll voters to ignore Auburn now. The Tigers should crack the poll for the first time since a loss to Arkansas slammed Auburn from the rankings on Oct. 11, one year ago.
Auburn's offense acquitted itself well against a Monte Kiffin-directed Tennessee defense that had clamped down on the Florida Gators and was expected to provide a significant challenge to a resurgent Tiger offense.
Auburn moved the ball significantly better against Tennessee than did the nation's No. 1 team, Florida. The Tigers put up better numbers despite the efforts of more than 100,000 Volunteer fans in Knoxville. Florida had the luxury of taking down the Vols at home.
Auburn piled up 459 total yards on Rocky Top. Florida managed just 323.
Running back Ben Tate continued to chew up the opposition, rolling up 128 yards on 25 carries. On one highlight-reel quality hit, Tate lowered his shoulder and sent All American safety Eric Berry pinwheeling into a backward slide.
If that doesn't give you pause, try to wrap your mind around this:
Tiger quarterback Chris Todd outperformed Florida Heisman Trophy winner (and presumed favorite unless you're Lou Holtz and have an unhealthy obsession with all things Notre Dame) Tebow.
Todd was 19 of 32 passing for 218 yards and a touchdown. He didn't throw an interception and wasn't sacked. Against the Vols, Tebow threw for a meager 115 yards. He was sacked three times and was picked off once. Florida's superman did rush for 105 yards on 24 attempts, but that's not the role Todd is required to play.
Nobody's cranking up a Todd for Heisman campaign yet, but the Auburn quarterback has numbers that rank near the top of the SEC in every significant category. Todd is second in the league in yards per game with an average of 246. He's fourth in passing efficiency.
He is cool and efficient in running offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's game plan. Todd took his lumps against Tennessee as the Vols brought pressure and hit Todd often. He took the punishment and delivered despite the beating he suffered.
The special teams' gaffes that plagued the Tigers in all four games were non-existent on Saturday. Onterrio McCalebb's kickoff returns were electric.
His fourth-quarter return, in particular, flipped field position and provided the Tigers momentum that should have finished off the Volunteers.
Auburn did no damage on punt returns but that includes damage to itself which has been a weekly occurrence. Fair catches ruled the day and while they limited field position with four coming inside the Tiger 20, there were no muffs or bobbles.
Wes Byrum continued solid place-kicking work, hitting four of five field goals.
Overall, it was a fairly thorough domination and a game Auburn never seemed in jeopardy of losing control over.
At the very least, the Tigers established themselves as a team that will require attention by the rest of the SEC.
Now for the bad. And it's not all bad.
Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the game should not have been nearly as close as the final score reflected.
Auburn's performance was much more dominant than it would appear on the surface. The Tigers wasted several opportunities to drive a stake through Tennessee's heart. Auburn should have put Tennessee away and finished with a 10-15 point differential instead of the final four-point spread.
As the Tigers navigate a progressively more difficult October schedule, Auburn can't afford to squander scoring opportunities.
McCalebb dropped a pass in the end zone that should have been caught for one touchdown.
Late in the game, leading 23-16, Auburn had the ball inside the Tennessee five. Malzahn seemed to abandon his traditional method of attack content to drain the clock and kick a field goal for a 26-16 advantage with 34 seconds remaining.
Those two series alone would have been enough to turn a 26-22 win into a more typical for 2009 37-13 type spanking.
As it turned out, the field goal on the last offensive series was needed as Tennessee covered 79 yards in the final 34 seconds to tack on a consolation touchdown on the last play of the game.
There were worse final 34-second spans on Saturday. Georgia suffered one when LSU's Charles Scott broke loose for a game-winning score.
But the worst of all came when Ball State allowed a long game-winning pass for a score in the waning seconds against Toledo.
Auburn didn't suffer the ignominy that either the Bulldogs or Cardinals did, but still, the ease with which the Volunteers motored down the field as time ticked down is a concern.
Auburn's defense played relatively well most of the game. The Tigers did an excellent job of containing Tennessee's rushing attack, holding the Vols to 163 yards on the ground, well below their season average.
Tennessee opened the game with a 41-yard rush but that first series ended with a missed field goal. Nine of the next 10 Volunteer possessions finished with a punt.
The lone exception was a seven-play 70 yard touchdown march at the end of the first half.
If you're being honest, however, you have to acknowledge that many of the punting situations were caused as much by Tennessee miscues as they were outstanding Tiger defensive efforts.
Volunteer receivers dropped pass after pass. Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton threw in front of, over, behind and in front of open receivers.
Frustration was high. Just prior to the Vols late first half drive, ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews noted chaos on the Tennessee sideline with coaches and players having to be physically separated.
Yet Auburn could not take full advantage of the turmoil.
Tennessee players know better than to ask Crompton to pass the salt at dinner because it's likely to be intercepted before it gets there. Crompton had at least one pick in every game dating back to his first pee-wee effort. But he didn't have one Saturday.
Instead, Crompton had one of his best days as a Vol.
The much-maligned Tennessee quarterback played like Tom Brady in the fourth quarter against Auburn after playing like Marsha Brady for most of the last two years.
Auburn took a 23-6 lead with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and appeared to have the game well in hand.
Despite the desperation of the situation, the light went on for the Volunteer offense.
Tennessee churned 62 yards in seven plays, burning less than two minutes off the clock. Crompton, who'd shown all the finesse of a brick layer through three quarters caught fire. He hit four of five passes including a 31 yarder for a touchdown that trimmed Auburn's lead to 23-13.
After a defensive stop, Crompton went back to work. He was six of 12 on a 72-yard drive that resulted in a field goal. Four of the six completions gave Tennessee a first down, including an 18-yard completion on fourth and six.
From 23-6, Tennessee closed to 23-16.
McCalebb's return and the Byrum field goal that ended Auburn's next possession effectively slammed the door, but in the final three Tennessee drives, Crompton went from being a liability to at least window shopping the hero's cape.
He padded his stats with 64 yards on three completions in the final 34 seconds. Of his 259 total passing yards, 181 of them came in the fourth quarter.
Part of the reason for Crompton's success was Auburn failed to pressure him. The Tigers didn't register a sack and Auburn defenders were credited with a mere five hurries, a number that is probably generous.
Auburn managed to survive a revitalized Crompton over the final 10 minutes of the game, but his success has to buoy the confidence of the Ryan Mallets, Jevan Sneads and Greg McElroys waiting down the road.
That's a worry for next week.
Auburn is 5-0. The Tigers will likely be ranked for the first time in a calendar year when the polls come out today. Auburn is a virtual lock for a bowl game and probably a win or two away from getting New Year's Day consideration. The positives far outweigh the negatives.
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